A blanket of smoke settled over Kootenai County on Tuesday, lighting up the switchboard for a complaint hotline and chasing lung patients to their doctors.
Grass growers were burning fields on Rathdrum Prairie, in south Spokane County and on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, and winds sent the smoke over Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.
Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality hotline had logged more than 100 complaint calls by 4 p.m. Air quality specialists with the agency said that particulate levels had climbed to dangerously high levels, according to a staff member.
So far this season, the number of complaints has averaged about 30 a day, according to the agency.
Growers on Rathdrum Prairie burned 2,063 acres, the second-largest amount burned in one day since the burning season started.
Growers burn their fields annually this time of year to stimulate seed production.
Because wind conditions are expected to worsen today, growers were trying to squeeze in some extra acres Tuesday.
“There’s a threat of the wind changing to a northeasterly direction tomorrow - that’s why I let them go a little heavier today,” said Ed Honodel, meteorologist for the grass growers.
Ideal wind conditions carry the smoke aloft, over Hayden and the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. But Tuesday, shifts in wind direction and the cool air over Lake Coeur d’Alene caused the smoke to sink.
The burning was finished by 3:30 p.m., but Honodel said no one from the state agency had asked growers to stop.
Grass growers on the reservation stopped burning at 1:30 p.m. because the wind had turned to the north, sending smoke toward Coeur d’Alene.
In southern Spokane County, growers had only an hour window to burn in, Honodel said.
The dense cloud of smoke over Coeur d’Alene blocked views of nearby mountains and prompted residents with lung problems to call their doctors.
“It’s good for business, bad for patients,” said Dr. Henry Covelli, a specialist in respiratory diseases.
Covelli’s office took many calls from patients Tuesday, but he said it’s difficult to know whether their problems are related to the smoke or caused by a panic reaction.
Most lung problems surface a few days after a “trigger” such as smoke, he said.
“Most are smart enough to stay indoors, they’ll hide inside and they’re afraid that it will get worse,” Covelli said.
The Kootenai County Air Quality Coalition is tracking high-particulate days to see whether there is a correlation between air quality and lung problems here.
Kootenai Medical Center’s emergency room only had one asthma patient by 3 p.m., but he attributed his flare-up to a lingering cold, not smoke, said KMC spokesman Mike Regan.
Charlotte Nilson of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s smoke management program said she did not know how many acres were burned on Tuesday, but on Monday 1,677 acres were burned on the reservation. Farmers in Benewah County still have more than 9,000 acres to burn.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo